Her symptoms continued on and off for two years. First they were attributed to exercise-induced asthma, then to pleurisy. It took a severe episode and a stress test to finally diagnose what was happening. Amy was promptly hospitalized, only to have a massive heart attack while undergoing an angiogram. Since then, she has had 11 stents implanted and gone through two bypass surgeries.
Her story, and those of more than 20 other women, appears on the Heart Sisters blog as a compelling illustration of what it’s like to experience a heart attack – and a reminder that we often know less than we think about recognizing a heart attack andÂ taking appropriate action.
This is especially true for women’s heart attacks. The personal stories at Heart Sisters have some common threads – most of these women had chest pain, and many of them also had heartburn, nausea and sweating. Additionally,Â several of them reportedÂ fatigue,Â flu-like symptoms, and back or arm pain.Â AlthoughÂ pain, heartburn and sweating among men generallyÂ raise the index of suspicion for a heart attack, manyÂ of these women were initially told theyÂ hadÂ aÂ virus orÂ a panic attack, or that their symptoms were pregnancy-related.
It has only been in recent years that heart attacks in women have been studied more closely. One of the things that has been learned is that women’s heart attacks often don’tÂ follow the standard pattern we’ve come to associate with what Heart Sisters blogger Carolyn Thomas calls the “Hollywood heart attack,” in which the victim clutches his chest (usually it’s a he) and perhaps falls to the ground.
Here’s an even bigger revelation, though: Overall, Americans aren’t very good at recognizing a heart attack, period. Nor are they very good about taking correct action if they suspect they or someone they know is having a heart attack.
In an article that appeared a few months ago in Future Cardiology, author Jing Fang cites some rather disturbing statistics:
… National surveillance data show that the awareness of heart attack symptoms is still low among US adults – only 31% of US adults knew all five symptoms of a heart attack in 2005, and this percentage did not improveÂ when compared with 2001. Further, a study demonstrated that the delay in seeking treatment for a heart attack has changed little in recent decades, despite increased public awareness of the benefits of reperfusion therapy.
There’s more. Although awareness of women’s risk of having a heart attack has grown substantially among both white women and women of color, their knowledge of the warning signs of a heart attack hasn’t improved.Â A survey conducted in 2009Â among 3,000 women found that while more than half knew cardiovascular disease was the leading cause of death for women, only a minority knew that shortness of breath, chest tightness, nausea and fatigue were heart attack symptoms. And only about half said they would call 911 if they thought they were having a heart attack.
If you talk to local paramedics, many of them will tell you there’s a denial factor among men as well as women. Sometimes they delay calling 911 because they’re stoic or embarrassed. SometimesÂ they decide to drive to the emergency room themselves.
Indeed, despite all the public awareness campaigns about what to do if you think you’re having a heart attack, there still seems to be a fair amount of confusion. From the Future Cardiology article:
The symptoms of a heart attack may vary and may be similar to symptoms of other diseases, consequently a person may think that they have diseases other than heart attack and, therefore, wait too long before calling 911 or going to the hospital. Moreover, even individuals who are aware they are experiencing a heart attack may delay seeking care owing to a number of factors including fear, concerns about cost, self-treatment with medication, distrust of the healthcare system, consulting with family members, and embarrassment about calling emergency medical services if the condition turned out not to be a heart attack.
It appears there’s still work to be done on the education front.
How well do you think you could recognize the signs of a heart attack? Take the American Heart Association quiz here. You can also take the American Heart Association’s online heart attack risk assessment here.